A friend of mine recently used an interesting phrase: “the open walls movement.” I thought he was using the term as a synonym for “the street art festival circuit,” which upset me, because street art festivals do not have what I would call “open walls.” But really, my friend was commenting on a larger movement perceived to be spreading around the world to use public space differently (insomuch as walls on private property are public space). On the surface, he’s right. Street art festivals, grassroots muralism programs, free walls, curated alleyways and everything in between now exist in cities and small towns around the world.
Does that make a movement? I don’t know. Nobody is getting together to write a manifesto and participants’ aims and methods are diverse, but there is a disparate group of what I’ll call “open walls people” who share a new way of looking at walls and public space: Public walls are for the artists, murals enliven streets and communities, and there should be limited or no government regulation of murals, but advertising in public space should be heavily regulated or eliminated entirely. Simply put, “open walls people” believe in unrestricted art in (often odd) public spaces.
But how open are our walls today? Surfing the web, it sometimes feels like globe-trotting muralists can hop off a plane in any city, find a wall, and begin painting the next day, or that every small European city is covered in murals. That’s simply not true. Despite valiant and well-intentioned efforts, there’s a long way to go before we have anything approaching “open walls.”
Good news! One international superstar and two great Philadelphia mainstays are showing together in Philadelphia starting next week at the Department of Neighborhood Services show at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. Barry McGee is of course Barry“TWIST”McGee. Dan Murphy is half of Megawords and Vandalog readers may know him as a key member of Steve Powers’ ICY Signs company. Isaac Lin used to be at Philadelphia’s famous Space 1026 and graffiti nerds around the world may know him for his involvement with the DFW zines (which Dan Murphy has also been involved in). These three artists have shown together before and Murphy and Lin are regulars in the Philadelphia art scene, but I don’t think McGee has not shown in Philadelphia since the Indelible Market show at the ICA Philadelphia in 2000.
That McGee should return to Philadelphia with this show and at Fleisher/Ollman is fitting, since Indelible Market was curated by Alex Baker, who is now the director of Fleisher/Ollman, and also included three artists with one foot in the art world and one foot in graffiti: McGee, Todd James and Steve Powers. If the name of that show and the artist line up sounds familiar, it’s because Indelible Market was the first in a series of historic installations including the same trio that have taken place in spaces including Deitch Projects and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (the others being called Street Market and Street, with Street also including Murphy and others).
Is it too much to hope that Baker can strike gold again? Maybe that’s asking too much and expecting too little. Not every show that Baker does in this format has to be historic to be interesting, and it’s unfair to let one show define his curatorial/directorial career. Still, I’m really looking forward to Department of Neighborhood Services. At the very least it’s three really interesting artists, including one who hasn’t show in Philadelphia in far too long.
Philly, don’t miss this thing.
Department of Neighborhood Services opens on Friday, April 11th from 6-8pm and runs through June 7th at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery.
Earlier this month, I visited the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston for the opening of Barry McGee, a retrospective of McGee’s work that had come to Boston after first being shown last summer in Berkley, California at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Barry McGee is a mid-career retrospective and the most extensive museum exhibition of McGee’s career to date. This version of Barry McGee is somewhat smaller than the version in Berkley, and so a few large works are not included, but this version also included a few pieces that were not seen at Berkley, more specifically work by Boston artists and graffiti writers and a bit of new work by McGee. Since the exhibition is a retrospective, Barry McGee includes sculptures, paintings, drawings, zines, ephemera, etchings and video works by McGee from the early 1990’s all the way through to 2012, although even the old work is not quite the same as it once was because McGee likes to rearrange his old work into new configurations and shapes whenever possible. In addition to work by McGee, there were artworks and ephemera by about a dozen other artists whom McGee included in the show. It is not quite an official part of the show, ICA adjunct curator Pedro Alonzo also arranged for McGee to paint a mural on the back of Boston’s House of Blues theater. Despite the title, the show seems to be an effort by McGee to take advantage of his position as a “museum-ready artist” by bringing the work of his friends into the museum galleries too and to highlight the significance of the kind of graffiti that many people find ugly and undesirable.
In Ben Valentine’s review on Hyperallergic of the Berkley version of Barry McGee, Valentine completely missed the mark and misunderstood McGee’s work and what was going on in the show. Valentine repeatedly refers to McGee as a “street artist” or his work as “street art”, a mistake that was made in some of the Boston press as well, perhaps because street artist is a more institutionally acceptable term than the much more accurate “graffiti artist” or “graffiti writer”. Valentine also claimed that there were sculptures all around the show of McGee tagging walls, and suggested that this might be some sort of mid-life crisis/street-cred proving move by McGee to show that he is still authentic. In fact, practically the opposite is true. Those sculptures actually depict McGee’s assistant Josh Lozcano and help to point out that McGee is older and that he is not longer as directly as involved in the culture he grew up in as he might like to be, whereas Lozcano is from a slightly younger generation and continued on as an active and accomplished writer long after McGee went into his current stage of semi-retirement.
Similarly, at the opening at the ICA I heard multiple people asking docents what the letters “THR,” “CBT,” or “DFW” stood for or meant (the letters appear throughout much of the work in the show). The docents were either unable to answer or radioed in to their superiors and then explained that the letters were acronyms for “The Human Race” and “Down For Whatever,” but the significance of the letters is much more important than the meaning. DFW, CBT, and THR are graffiti crews that McGee is affiliated with. McGee is repping his crews in his own way, now that he has the attention of museum-goes and does not have the freedom to go out writing graffiti as much as he once did. Of course volunteer docents cannot be expected to know everything about every exhibition, but if McGee’s show has meaning beyond “these are some cool drawings I did,” it has to do with graffiti’s relationship to the museum and the community spirit of graffiti versus the one-man genius model of the museum.
McGee is subversive to a point that he probably gets in his own way sometimes. He is clearly uncomfortable in galleries and museums, even though he has exhibited his work indoors for about two decades. This discomfort about and subversion of museum norms is the hidden theme of the show, which McGee successfully sneaks into the museum.
The elements of Barry McGee that McGee himself made sure were included, and a few pieces that may have been added by curators but which it seems likely McGee had a good amount of say in including, point towards his attempts to subvert the museum and their model of a one-man retrospective even when it is about his own work. The show includes the work of at least a dozen other artists, and, in a video tour of the exhibition by curator Jenelle Porter, Porter points out that McGee’s video installation is made up of animations and video clips created and organized by McGee’s assistant Lozcano. Some of the other artists whose work can be found in the show include McGee’s late wife Margaret Kilgallen, his father Jon McGee, Craig “KR” Costello, more than half a dozen freight train moniker writers, and Rize (a prominent Boston-based graffiti writer in the early to mid 1990’s and the subject of a photograph which has appeared repeatedly in McGee’s work since the mid-1990’s). McGee even devoted an entire room of the exhibition to showing his work alongside the work his friends and legendary Boston graffiti writers who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to show inside the ICA. Lozcano’s chaotic tower videos and animations also include clips of other graffiti writers at work next to animations of McGee’s drawings, and at this point it becomes hard to say anymore exactly how many of McGee’s colleagues are represented in the show because there are dozens of video clips with fast cuts that all seem to melt together in the massive installation. Some would say that graffiti is about ego, and that can certainly be said of the upper-echelons of the art world, but McGee broke the stereotypes to subvert the museum and turn his supposed one-man retrospective into a celebration of many artists and mark-makers.
Outdoors, the trend of subversion of norms and inclusion/celebration of graffiti culture and community continues. Rather than putting his name (TWIST) on the wall on behind Boston’s House of Blues, we get Lozcano’s name (AMAZE) in huge letters next to an almost equally massive OKER tribute piece (OKER is currently serving time in prison in the UK for graffiti, and haspainted with Lozcano and McGee before). McGee put up the names of people who would better fit the wall, since the wall can be seen from the highway coming into Boston, and there is plenty of illegal graffiti to see nearby along the highway. And the names were put up so that they resembled graffiti except on a massive scale and with permission, subverting the traditional expectation that a mural should look nothing like graffiti, or even cover it up. Murals like this are nothing new for McGee, but I am still explaining it in detail because it was one more subversive move to highlight more authentic graffiti and shine a light on a couple of the deserving artists whom the ICA would otherwise ignore or not be aware of at all.
So is McGee successful in his efforts? Yes and no. He is successful in bringing those close to him into the museum along with him, but what is less clear is whether or not anyone has noticed. Given Valentine’s review of Barry McGee in Berkley and questions by visitors that went unanswered or poorly answered, it seems that McGee has only succeeded half way. Has anyone who was not already in on it has noticed his subversion? If you do not already know what DFW and THR mean, you probably are not going to discover their meaning by staring at one of McGee’s paintings. On the other hand, those who have been included seem happy, and the irony of OKER’s name being included in such a respectful way on a legal wall while he sits in prison for illegal graffiti is likely to be appreciated by the graffiti community. So maybe McGee’s subversion is a sort of secret subversion. For those who know, the show is bit of a coup. For those who do not know, things are business as usual, and that’s fine.
Barry McGee is the ICA/Boston’s fourth time bringing someone from the street art or graffiti world into their museum, and of the other attempts I have seen (with the work of Os Gemeos and Swoon) it is the most successful. Barry McGee is full of strong work, it provides a good introduction to McGee without being repetitive, and McGee still manages to let his true self shine through by subverting the museum’s goals somewhat and turning the show into a show about real graffiti and community, if you are in the know. At the same time, I fear that the ICA has missed the point of their own show and failed to see McGee’s true brilliance, so the success seems somewhat accidental.
Remember the retrospective of the fantastic Barry McGee last year in California? Exciting news: That show is headed to the ICA Boston next month. The show, simply titled Barry McGee, runs April 6th-September 2nd. Last year’s Os Gemeos show at the ICA was great, but it was small if you don’t include their outdoor work. This McGee show won’t be small, and it covers his work from the early 90’s through to today. Not much else to say yet except that you should see this one if it’s at all possible.
I’m not quite sure what has happened here. First, an artist who goes by the name Edwin painted this piece in Hackney Wick. Now, it looks like this. It seems to me that Sweet Toof went up and added his teeth to the piece as a subtle diss to Edwin for ripping off LennyTheHighRoller, the character that Sweet Toof and Cyclops used to paint back when their Burning Candy crew really dominated Hackney Wick. Yes, lots of street artists paint skulls and graffiti writers paint skulls, but the similarities here, particularly the eyes and given the location, are too much to ignore as mere coincidence. Also, this might be a stretch, but the hands in Edwin’s piece kinda look like Gold Peg’s hands (who also painted with Burning Candy in Hackney Wick and elsewhere).
This film about M. Chat is screening in Philadelphia next week at the Slought Foundation. Strange thing though. The description of the film actually never gives the name of the artist, but M. Chat has a Wikipedia article and a Twitter account and shows work in galleries. Additionally, the Slought Foundation has posted downloadable templates of M. Chat’s work for people to customize and put up on their own. I called up the Slought Foundation and was told that Thoma Vuille, the man who it seems was behind M. Chat, is not involved in the show, although the man I spoke with suggested that the M. Chat logo may have been painted by a collective rather than just one man (like The Toasters collective with one logo and multiple members). So, is this appropriation of an unexplained urban mystery or theft an artist’s creation? I’m not one for strict copyright laws, but it does seem to me like the moral thing to do here would be to at least give some credit to Vuille aka M. Chat rather than pretend that the cat is still a complete mystery.
As I tweeted the other day, my mind is kinda stuck on how much I wish the Parra show at Jonathan Levine Gallery opened today and not on Saturday so that I could go see it. So while I’ve been distracted by that point, here’s some of what I almost missed this week:
Nice video of Eine updating one of his walls in London from saying PRO PRO PRO to PROTAGONIST. Interesting comment about street art being a thing that “looked like it would offer what graffiti promised but didn’t deliver.”
Jonathan Jones is up to his old tricks of dissing Banksy to get more hits for his column, and I’m biting. He writes, “Banksy, as an artist, stops existing when there is no news about him.” Even if that is the case, is that the end of the world? Does that relegate Banksy to “art-lite”? No. Banksy is one of the most talked-about artists in the world. I would bet that the same criticism was leveled against Warhol, who I believe Jones likes. Banksy’s manipulation of the media, playing it like a damn violin sometimes, is some of his greatest artwork of all. He manipulates the media to spread a message. The best example of this was probably him going to Bethlehem to paint on the separation wall because he knew that the media would cover it. He was able to play the media to draw attention to an issue that he felt strongly about. Banksy’s paintings are sometimes great and sometimes not. But his ability to make people fascinated with him and his paintings is just as much of an art, and that shouldn’t discredit him.
From the great minds of The Heavy Projects and Public Ad Campaign, Re+Public has emerged as the collaborative effort to revision and “democratize” public space through the use of their Augmented Reality app. Two new videos have recently been released which show this technology in full effect: (above) the app reacts to preexisting murals by How & Nosm, Aiko, Retna, and Ryan McGinness at Miami’s Wynwood Walls by turning the murals into giant 3D animations, and (below) the app unveils the timeline of New York City’s Bowery and Houston wall, including the work of Keith Haring, Faile, Barry McGee, Aiko and others who have historically left their mark on the wall.
V1 Gallery in Denmark celebrates its 10th year with Tonight We Won’t Be Bored; a massive show of 100 new works by artists like André, Kenny Scharff, Futura, Faile, Lydia Fong (aka Barry McGee), Barbara Kruger, Shepard Fairey, Steve Powers, Todd James, Andrew Schoultz, Thomas Campbell, Erik Parker, André, Neckface, Eine, Wes Lang, Clayton Brothers, and many others. The show opened on November 30th and runs through January 12th.
The Copenhagen gallery got its start in 2002, in a space which had formerly been used as a bakery. With their first exhibition being with Faile, they got the ball rolling pretty quick. By 2007 they moved to a larger space and later started curating shows and participating in art fairs around the world.